Darwin and Obama

Modern social Darwinism has essentially reintroduced an early capitalist economic approach to society.

Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
However history may come to judge the Obama era, his very victory symbolizes an emergence from the shadows of a man who has set the tone for our lives and outlooks more lastingly than any political leader. Charles Darwin clarified man's origins in nature and prophesied "a secure future of great length" in which "all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection." But Darwin also subjugated the destiny of his species to the primacy of biology and thereby placed an enormous obstacle in the way of its development. His theory of evolution has fostered a way of thinking that until quite recently made the election of a biracial man from a working-class background to the most powerful political post in the world seem like a utopian dream. Darwin's shadow looms above his name by three little letters: i, s and m. No other natural scientist of his stature, neither a Newton nor an Einstein nor a Heisenberg, has ever gone down in history as the founder of an ism. But Darwin has had to pay a heavy posthumous price for this honor. In common parlance Darwinism has come to stand for social Darwinism, for the rat race and the validation of the stronger in today's all-pervasive dog-eat-dog world. Labeling someone a Darwinist is rarely meant as a compliment. When people talk about a market crisis or a crisis of capitalism as a whole these days, they are invoking the crisis of a Darwinism of competition and selfishness - not only in society, but also in biology. Life scientists, such as Joachim Bauer, a neurobiologist in Freiburg, Germany, are starting to point out that "Darwinism has now become a kind of nightmare." Freeman Dyson has proclaimed "the end of the Darwinian era," and Jürgen Habermas has declared that "world politics unfettered by social Darwinism" is a thing of the past. But what has Darwin to do with any of this? Has he been unjustly saddled with those three letters, as conventional wisdom would have it, or is it appropriate for (social) Darwinism to carry his name? Are societies truly subject to his basic biological law, or are mechanisms beyond biology at work in human interaction? How great is Darwin's own responsibility for having become such a polarizing figure? DARWIN'S HISTORIC achievement is undisputed. He was the first to formulate a global theory of life. He described the creative force of death, without which there would be no evolutionary progress. He established a natural, material basis to explain the existence of humans and all other living beings. His theory of evolution teaches us that the inner nexus holding the living world together is its history. According to the theory of "common descent," Darwin's enduring legacy, all creatures share one and the same origin. According to Darwin, it was not a planning God who set forth the tremendous diversity of life, but an unplanned process called "natural selection," in which chance and necessity are productively complementary. We might say that Darwin's dilemma reflects a paradox in the history of science, an inherent flaw in his theory that was nonetheless essential to its genesis. After studying fossils and living species and recognizing the variability that comes about in the process of evolution, he compared this evolutionary process with the way plants are cultivated and animals bred. The modification of species, he noted, was actually a guided, accelerated form of evolution. His colleagues pointed out to him that selective breeding differed fundamentally from natural selection. In the process of selective breeding, (human) knowledge and will are trained on achieving specific objectives, whereas natural selection lacks objectives and a guiding hand. In every generation, poorly adapted human beings have a reduced likelihood of procreating. There is no process of positive selection for human beings or other living creatures, as there is with selective breeding; the only selection process tends to be negative. If breeders were to work like nature, they would have to wait quite a long time for success - if it came at all. Left to its own devices, biological evolution never would have produced pinschers or Great Danes, jumbo-sized grains or super-sized cows. These are products of culture. Darwin proceeded to his deductive stroke of genius by linking what he had learned about breeding to the population theory of his fellow countryman, economist Thomas Malthus, whose theoretical model in the latter part of the 18th century was also squarely focused on man. According to Malthus, mankind increases exponentially and doubles in size within a single generation, while the rise in food production is only linear, resulting inevitably in a state of affairs in which not everyone has enough to eat. The resulting "Malthusian catastrophes" have dramatic consequences, notably illness, war and cannibalism, with only the strongest surviving the struggle for existence. Darwin applied the Malthusian "struggle for existence" to nature. To some extent, the economic analysis associated with Manchester capitalism embodies the theory of biological evolution - from brutal competition, with every man for himself, to the selection mechanisms of the market, to the creation of new niches or products. Living beings become objects of evolution, and quality control becomes a function of biological ranking. Modern social Darwinism has essentially reintroduced an early capitalist economic approach to society that uses scientific theory to provide a foundation seemingly grounded in the laws of nature. When he approached the subject of man in his writings, Darwin adhered only to the logic of his own discoveries. Because Homo sapiens is subject to the laws of biological evolution, like all living creatures, everything that constitutes man must have gone through the mill of natural selection. As we would say today, he believed that cultural differences are genetically determined, that genes guide our behavior and that, conversely, our behavior is reflected in our genes. DARWIN'S BLIND spot lay in his tendency to underestimate the power of cultural evolution, which began to supersede biological evolution by the time man chose a settled way of life. In contrast to his closest relatives, Homo sapiens can boost the available food supply beyond its natural limits. Without agriculture and cattle breeding, in the absence of crop cultivation and food technology, our species would never have reached even the one billion mark it did in Darwin's day. Since Darwin's day, mankind has risen above biological evolution more and more as it has progressed culturally, especially with advances in medicine and technology - and has increased its numbers to nearly seven billion. In modern societies, the most important condition for natural selection, namely a large number of offspring of which only a limited percentage will go on to procreate, is on the wane. With two children per couple, and a newborn survival rate that approaches one hundred percent, selection in the Darwinian sense has essentially ground to a halt. Just as Darwin favored nature above nurture, and innate over acquired characteristics, he held that man had very little latitude to develop beyond the confines of his birth. People are good or evil, poor or rich, superior or inferior, because biology has fashioned them that way. Today we know that biological evolution invests every newborn with a highly pliant essence that can develop in many possible ways within the framework of its cultural evolution. The more opportunities are made available to a person early on, the more opportunities will abound later in life. The three letters of his shadow have their origin in a tautology, "survival of the fittest." In claiming that the fittest survive, he actually had in mind those who are best equipped to survive. This phrase is one of the most momentous that a researcher has ever put on paper. It did not stem from Darwin, though, but instead from a sociologist, Herbert Spencer, and thus, once again, from a theoretical model of society. Spencer is considered the founder of social Darwinism, although he never would have shared the views it advocates today. He believed in cultural evolution, in an all-encompassing evolution, from the universe to the soul, from molecules to morals. The sick, weak and degenerate are eliminated in the course of the struggle for existence. Being good is just not good enough if something better comes along. In The Origin of Species of 1859 he found the biological underpinning he had been seeking for his philosophy. Darwin did not adopt the term "survival of the fittest" until a few years later. It first appeared in the fifth edition of his major work in 1869, to tone down the concept of natural selection, which was sounding too much like a product of human design. By this point he was already at work on his next book, The Descent of Man, which contains this political statement, following the example of Malthus: "All ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase." At the same time, he conceded "that in the earlier editions of Origin of Species I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest... and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work." But the genie was already out of the bottle, and it continues tacitly to dominate societal discourse to this day. The biologist Ernst Haeckel devoted himself to spreading Darwin's theory even during the latter's lifetime, particularly in Germany. Haeckel used Darwinism to propound political ideology, declaring selection and competition the foundations of social progress, viewing the German nation state as a Darwinist project, and creating an elaborate scientific framework for racism. People claim that the Nazis and other tyrannical regimes are based on Darwin, but the source is more properly Haeckel. DARWIN DID not intend for these kinds of interpretations to result. In contrast to Haeckel, he regarded people of all skin colors as members of a single species, and was a lifelong foe of slavery. Even so, like many in his day, he regarded the "races" as standing at differing biological stages of development - as though the group to which he himself belonged had been favored by natural selection. He clung to the misguided belief that it would take the others many generations to reach his level. As we know today, the concept of "race," as used by breeders, makes no sense when applied to humans. Eugenics and racial fanaticism notwithstanding, our species is not the result of calculated breeding. We are all of mixed origin, with a greater spectrum of variation possible within a population than from continent to continent. Barack Obama, a biracial man with a mother of European ancestry and an African father, has given a face to the postracial age. He owes his triumph not to inherited privileges, but to hereditary talents coupled with the opportunity to develop them with a good education. He is living proof of the soundness of one of the most important principles for establishing peace in the world: equal opportunity with social permeability. In contrast to Obama, Darwin did not come from humble beginnings. He grew up in a privileged, well-to-do bourgeois household. He owed his success and fame less to his genes than to his father's money, and his upbringing and education mattered at least as much as his native intelligence. If he had been born into poverty, he might have ended up as a factory or coal mine worker regardless of his talents. The Darwinist framework has its modern continuation in sociobiology, which attempts to explain animal and human behavior by means of evolutionary biology. It revives Darwin's idea of explaining both physical and mental traits by employing the mechanisms of biological evolution - and thereby reducing the role of cultural evolution. No one disputes the prominent role of (innate) instincts in human behavior. We do not become sexually aroused, afraid of the dark or subject to adrenaline rushes when confronted with danger because someone taught us these reactions. But to claim that we are little more than marionettes of the genes that proved advantageous for our earliest ancestors is to deny the influence of civilization and culture. But in reality genes do not "do" anything, any more than texts do something of their own accord. At best, something is done with them when they are "read." Biological systems as the actual agents use the genome to maintain their vital function and to adapt to external conditions, not the other way around. Darwin would probably have welcomed this modern biological perspective. He sensed that natural selection would not remain the sole evolutionary mechanism, but he considered it the key driving force. His discovery has endured to this day. It can be simulated in experiments and even observed outdoors. He would have been less pleased to note that it now seems more like the powerful background noise of evolution, while altogether different mechanisms trigger the major evolutionary leaps and bounds. This reduces the importance of another aspect of the theory on which social Darwinism is based, namely that progress is first and foremost a result of competition between individuals. Today we are more inclined to view cooperation as a determining principle on every level of biological systems: molecules form cells, which work together in tissues and organs, which in turn serve the organism, which then forms part of the ecosystem and biosphere. Barack Obama has profited from a contrasting model that is far less firmly entrenched, a social Darwinism in which talents and opportunities for development rather than biological or social background decide one's role in life. His wife, Michelle, who grew up in a lower-middle-class household, then attended Princeton and earned a law degree at Harvard, shares in this success. The Obamas' achievements have brought down both racial and class barriers. If everyone were afforded opportunities like theirs, the result would not be a leveling down to the lowest common denominator, but rather equal rights for all - with Darwin's blessing. "There should be open competition for all men," he wrote in The Descent of Man, "and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring." Of course, by "the most able," he really meant himself and those like him. With his call for change, Barack Obama made evolutionary transformation the centerpiece of his campaign. He was all of two years old when Martin Luther King proclaimed his dream to the world. Less than half a lifetime later, Obama had realized this dream - as if to furnish proof of the penetrating power of cultural evolution. He owes his victory in large part to a collective spirit extending throughout the world. His victory also signals a breakthrough for the most basic biological principle of cooperation - a giant step for mankind from "I" to "we." His winning phrase was not I can, but we can. The writer is affiliated with the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch.